The Chiefs, improbably, trailed only 14-10 at halftime as the football world wondered if there might be an upset brewing. Retreating to their locker rooms inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, where there were around 35,000 empty seats, the teams took their halftime break.
Remarkably, Hank Stram, the Chiefs coach and a man with a flair for showmanship, allowed Life magazine access to his locker room. Photographer Bill Ray had taken the assignment with a bit of a shrug, telling Kevin Clark of the Ringer that he was thinking: “Who knows? It all seemed kind of historic.”
Ray snapped away as sweaty, dirty, spent players filed in and sat down to recuperate for the second half.
Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson was a veteran player who had already led teams to three AFL championships. He knew what he had accomplished and what remained over the second half, so he plopped down on a metal folding chair and reached for two creature comforts of the 1960s. As he downed soda pop — a Fresca — and pulled cigarette smoke into his lungs, Ray was there.
In addition to his acclaimed career taking war photos, Ray also had captured unforgettable images of Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe (singing “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy as she wore that dress), the Beatles and Ray Charles. The halftime moment with Dawson was just as perfect, though it took years for that photo to develop its iconic status.
“It seems impossible now,” Ray, who died in January, told Clark. “People smoked all the time, and it was amazing that the star quarterback was doing it.”
Dawson’s Chiefs, meanwhile, had outgained the Packers in the first half and seemed unbothered by any nerves.
“We were looking for a little respect — I don’t know if, realistically, winning the game, but making sure it was a game. The one thing we didn’t want was a blowout,” Dawson told the Kansas City Star in 1996. “Before the game, we were apprehensive, but at halftime that attitude changed. We believed we could win.”
The second half was another story. Dawson and the Chiefs were shut out after the break and lost, 35-10, to a Packers team led by quarterback Bart Starr and coach Vince Lombardi. But Dawson and the Chiefs weren’t finished. They went on to win Super Bowl IV under Stram, and Dawson was that game’s MVP. He retired after the 1975 season and was eventually inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He later spent decades as a color analyst for Chiefs radio broadcasts.
“Next to my father, few people have had a more lasting impact on the Kansas City Chiefs than Len Dawson,” Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt, whose father, Lamar Hunt, founded the team, said when Dawson was set to retire from the radio job in 2017. “Over the course of his legendary career — first as a player and later as a broadcaster — Len has been a part of every major moment in franchise history."
Ray’s halftime image, in either black and white or color, wasn’t published until early 2014, when Time put together a gallery of Life images from the game, then known as the AFL-NFL World Championship Game.
In the early winter of 2018, the by-now instantly recognizable image found new life on the back of Kansas City’s latest star quarterback. Patrick Mahomes — who was wrapping up an MVP season at the time — wore a bright, Chiefs-red sweatshirt bearing the image of Dawson, his cigarette and his soda.
Earlier that season, Dawson and Mahomes sat for an interview after Mahomes threw his 31st touchdown pass, breaking Dawson’s franchise mark for a single season, set in 1964.
“What’s the next record?” Dawson asked him (via KMBC.com). “The next one you should be talking about is winning it all.”
“That’s the next step since you won yours,” Mahomes said. “For us, our goal is to win that Super Bowl, and bring it back to this organization.”
He’ll get a chance Feb. 2, when the Chiefs make their third Super Bowl appearance, this one against the NFC champion San Francisco 49ers. Just don’t expect either starting quarterback to have a Fresca and a smoke.